Monday, July 26, 2010

Six Inches to a Mile

We must learn those new names. We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home.

(Brian Friel, Translations)

Whanganui. Redirected from Wanganui.


Not all of my regular readers have connections to New Zealand, and I wonder what they would make of the fact that a local Mayor responded to calls by the national geographic board to fix the spelling of his town’s name as a ‘racist decision’. How quickly would they unwrap that one, I wonder? Could Whanganui happen elsewhere?

The answer to the last question is yes, of course. In fact throughout this eighteen-month-long furore I’ve been often reminded that my first encounter with the idea of toponomy as an instrument of colonisation dates back to before my time in New Zealand. I picked up a copy of Brian Friel’s play Translations in Edinburgh in 1992 or 1993, during a holiday. I think I was attracted at first by the brilliant device of having characters that all speak English on stage not understand each other, because in the diegesis most of the English actually stands in for the Gaelic spoken in the 1830s, at the time when the play is set. This culminates in the scene between Maire and Yolland, the Irish villager and the English soldier, each trying in vain to speak the language of the other, whilst resulting perfectly intelligible to the audience. In the end it is Yolland who breaks the barrier with a wooing speech consisting entirely of the recitation of local place names – the names that along with the rest of his detachment of Royal Engineers he had been put in charge of anglicising. I have never seen the play performed, but it’s a scene that has stayed with me.

The result of that survey was a map scaled at six inches to a mile, with the vast majority of the toponyms either anglicised (Dùn Na Gall = Donegal) or translated altogether. It was work carried out by soldiers, as if to highlight that mapping the land means taking ownership of it, and so does naming its features. In her Odyssey of Captain Cook, Christchurch artist Marian Maguire illustrates this point in a New Zealand context in an etching entitled 'The Map of the Coast of New Ithaca'. This is a standard Cook-era map of New Zealand, except Odysseus as coloniser has transplanted onto the coast of the new found land the sites of his Mediterranean adventures (visitors to the Bay of Islands in particular may want to watch out for Scylla). There is a strangeness, an out-of-placeness about this textual information – Taranaki is now Mount Zeus, and so forth – that calls attention to the literally far-fetched origins of so many of our actual geographical names, beginning most obviously with Zealand itself, which is what we’re purportedly making new. What Maguire also does here is to highlight the narrative nature of maps, the fact that they tell stories – stories that those of us who have the requisite knowledge of Māori lore and colonial history can retrace and retell.

Group portrait of six government surveyors, photographed in May 1868 by Wrigglesworth and Binns in Wellington (detail). From Timeframes.

But even when naming consists of writing down designations that were previously only spoken, as in the case of New Zealand places that retained their Māori names, it’s still intrinsically colonial in nature. From here to here will henceforth be known as Manawatu. Taranaki welcomes you; Taranaki farewells you. You are now entering the Waikato. None of these binary demarcations existed in pre-colonial New Zealand. Nor did private property, of course, or the concept of a parcel of land. Writes Gyselle M. Byrnes:
Land surveying was fundamental to the European acquisition of territory and to the creation of new definitions of space and place. The work of colonial land surveyors reflects much that is central to the European history of New Zealand, particularly the transformation and domestication of the natural environment. Although physically located on the margins of the settler society, surveyors occupied a central role in implementing the principles of colonisation on the ground, operating (quite literally) at the ‘cutting edge’ of colonisation. Given this colonising agenda, it is not surprising that [the diary of surveyor Thomas Kingwell Skinner] projects a strong mercantilist vision, where the landscape is seen with the eyes of the future. ‘We have indeed come to a land flowing with milk and honey—a land wherein there is no want’, he noted in his diary on first inspection of the Taranaki hinterland. ‘The valleys are particularly rich,’ he continued, ‘and this is the best land you can find’.

I’ll come back to this mercantile aspect in a minute. First I need to explain Whanganui to my kind foreign readers. It is a town in central region of the North Island of New Zealand, see. And since its origins it was named Wanganui, from the Māori name of the river that flows through it, and this state of affairs continued until the early Nineties, when calls were successfully made to add an aitch to the name of the river to restore its etymological - as opposed to phonological - integrity (for Māori in this area, unlike in the rest of the country, w and wh have identical pronunciations). When local Māori called for the same correction to be applied to the city, the Council put it to a non-binding referendum, in which the name-change was soundly defeated. And when the Geographic Board went ahead and recommended the change to the Government anyway, the local Mayor, who also happens to be a radio talk-show host, called it a racist decision.

All this for the sake a silent aitch, you say? To illustrate the actual import of these matters to outsiders, one should further explain what the Waitangi Tribunal is, and how its righting of colonial wrongs takes the form not only of land restitutions and financial compensation, but also of cultural interventions based on historical and ethnographic research. For instance ‘[o]ne settlement with South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu specified 96 place name alterations,’ explains Te Ara. And with these forms of redress comes the simmering resentment that has made Whanganui something of a flashpoint and a shorthand for this particular aspect of race relations in New Zealand.

And it’s not just Whanganui. The Rimutaka hill, near Wellington, has recently been in the news when it was put forward that it should really be called Remutaka, and that its etymology has nothing to do with the tree known as rimu. Again, the historical lines are clear and it would appear to be a fairly straightforward business, but the local reaction has been heated. Featherston local and former South Wairarapa District councillor John Tenquist, for one, called the proposal ‘ludicrous’ and declared:
What is wrong with the way it is? Once again we are pandering to a minority. We have some European heritage in this country and, rightly or wrongly, it has been Rimutaka for over 150 years, so if it ain't broken, don't fix it.

This is not an untypical rhetorical stance of the post-colonialists, lambasting the PC sensitivities of the minority while at the same time revealing an even greater sensibility to matters such as the inalienable right of their forebears to get Māori names wrong. Meanwhile up Howick’s way, in the redesign of Auckland’s districts in light of the advent of the Super City, it was suggested that – without renaming the suburb itself – the local administrative body could take the historically meaningful indigenous name of Te Irirangi, but that measure too was shot down by means of a virulent local campaign featuring the always unpleasant sight of a triumphant Maurice Williamson, MP. And when Brian Rudman wrote a critical piece on the decision for the The New Zealand Herald, this was one of the responses he got.
Rock (Onehunga)
01:34PM Wednesday, 21 Apr 2010
Let's remove the rascist (sic) hysteria that Brian Edmonds' (sic) loves to create and look at the truth of the matter. Money.

The average house price in what is currently Te Irirangi (Otara/East Tamaki) is about $265,000. The average price of a house in Howick is about $550,000. Why would anyone want to have their property associated with one of the cheapest housing area's (sic) in Auckland?

How's that going to help improve the value of their properties? It seems more of a case of trying to up the average house price in the Otara/East Tamaki ward by associating it with the Eastern Bays ward. Much to the detriment of the Eastern Bays residents who are labelled racists when they object.

This is quite a brilliant gambit, I think you’ll agree: reading property values into place names and the boundaries between them creates a straight, direct connection to the old surveyors, and those imperial maps that allowed to establish and then police private property. In the case of the Irish survey of 1833, the exercise was already presented as a form of colonial redress, as Friel tells us by including in the play the relevant passage of the ordnance:
All former surveys of Ireland originated in the forfeiture and violent transfer of property; the present survey has as its object the relief which can be afforded to the proprietors and occupiers of land from unequal taxation.

Conservatives at most latitudes understand this: that if you seize land illegally you might some day have to give it back, or pay something close to its fair price. It may well be that shared commitment to the defence of property that has allowed the remarkable bi-partisan support to the establishment and continuing operation of the Waitangi Tribunal. But it’s the Tribunal’s other function, to provide the means for ongoing cultural and even semiotic redress, that creates arguably the most friction, and the simmering unease that I have endeavoured to describe; that worries conservatives, who fear the unsettlingly vague, open-ended nature of the process, the lack of a statute on limitations on Pākehā guilt; and it’s that function that should give heart to the rest of us, in that it provides a framework for ongoing cultural and linguistic negotiations, for remappings that seek to mend not just our geography, but also our history.

In Friel’s play, it is Yolland, the English soldier, who voices his doubts to Owen, the eager translator (and businessman): that what they are doing is an eviction of sorts, and that in rectifying and standardising those places names, even the ones that over time have become riddled with confusion, ‘something is being eroded’. The need to have a Māori language week reminds us of the extent of that erosion, and that even when faced with the ongoing emergency of a language in peril, every little gesture counts – even for the sake of a silent aitch.

Henry Claylands: Sketch map of the coast from Whanganui to Manawa pou, 1864. From Timeframes.

Brian Friel. Translations. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.
Giselle M. Byrnes. ‘Texted pasts’—the sources of colonial land surveying. Kōtare 1998, Vol I, Nr. 1.
Marian Maguire. The Odyssey of Captain Cook. Christchurch: Papergraphica, 2005.

I stumbled upon this video of a class of Spanish speaking English learners rehearsing a scene of Translations and it seemed worth including it.
This is a good resource on the historical context of Friel's play.